Consider this a desperate plea to Oscar voters to avoid falling into the trap I’m afraid they may be susceptible to when it comes time to cast their ballots.
There has been a notable number of quality movies released in 2018 all tackling similar themes, including gentrification, racial injustice, police brutality, and general questions about what it means to be different in the U.S. Most of these movies involve largely African-American casts navigating common problems and struggling to reconcile their black and American identities.
As of late October, movie theaters have already been graced with "Black Panther," "Sorry to Bother You," "Blindspotting," "BlacKkKlansman," and "The Hate U Give." That doesn’t even include the mostly overlooked "Monsters and Men," which explored the African-American community’s relationship with the police, and the upcoming "Green Book," about a black musician touring the 1960s Deep South with a white driver.
I have a nagging suspicion that many of these films will cancel each other out in the minds of Oscar voters. So, to everyone with a say in who will be honored this year: Please remember to consider these movies individually, not just as a “woke” trend.
Frankly, the Oscars have been in dicey racial territory for a while now. The #OscarsSoWhite phenomenon has been well-documented and doesn’t need to be re-litigated here. But there was another, even more insidious move the Academy tried to pull just a few months ago that raised questions about its true intentions.
In August, the Academy briefly made waves by announcing that it might add a “Best Popular Movie” category to its yearly telecast meant to honor … well, no one was exactly sure what they were going for with this idea. They nixed the notion before they had to make any tough decisions, but not before many folks read between the lines.
In my Washington Examiner piece at the time, I mentioned that a sentiment that seemed at least relatively prevalent on social media at the time was that the Oscars were instituting this new category so they wouldn’t have to nominate "Black Panther" for Best Picture. The subtext there was that the Academy was tipping its hand in terms of its racial biases.
Again, there was no evidence to support that, but the thought that it seemed plausible to many should give the Academy pause. That should also factor into voters’ minds as they ruminate on the best movies of 2018. Lumping all these films together would be just as telling as all the awards the Academy heaped on the racially problematic "Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri" last year.
Let’s start with "Black Panther." Yes, it’s a Marvel superhero film, but it also tackles important themes of isolation versus globalization and what people of color the world over owe to each other. It was both a technical and commercial achievement that briefly enjoyed cultural-phenomenon status. Director Ryan Coogler could easily be nominated for Best Director.
"Sorry to Bother You" was a surrealist meditation on the effects of gentrification in Oakland, Calif., and the inherent racial injustices people of color face every day that gets very, very weird in fascinating ways. It was released in July and, in my mind, was the best film to come out this summer. Again, director Boots Riley should be in the Best Director conversation.
My favorite movie of 2018 so far is "Blindspotting," another Oakland-set film that dealt heavily with how gentrifying neighborhoods affect long-time residents. It also featured a raw, honest storyline about the traumatic effects of witnessing a police shooting. My hill to die on this Oscar season is advocating for Daveed Diggs, the film’s star, to receive a Best Actor nomination.
Spike Lee went back in time for "BlacKkKlansman," a film about black and white detectives teaming up to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan. It not-so-subtlety paralleled the renewed prominence of Klan-esque rhetoric in modern politics and featured a fantastic supporting performance from Adam Driver.
And then, there’s "The Hate U Give," a film I reviewed for the Examiner and still believe is worthy of Oscar consideration. It chronicles how the life of a teenage African-American girl changes forever after a childhood friend is shot and killed by a policeman right in front of her. Star Amandla Stenberg and supporting player Russell Hornsby deserve to be high on Oscar ballots.
It’s tough to imagine none of these films earning at least a little Oscar love when the nominations are announced in a few months. But it’s also not particularly difficult to envision a scenario where Oscar voters reflect on these films and say to themselves, “These are all too similar. Next.”
To be fair, the Oscars not giving these films their due isn’t a sign that the Academy is racist. It would, however, be a bad look to see white-fronted period piece after white-fronted period piece be honored as these films are either all cast aside or shunned from the final contenders altogether.
There’s an easy way for the Academy to avoid that. These movies all came out this year because they represent the issues most important to the movie-going public. The Oscars need to recognize their significance, both individually and collectively. This year, more than any other, a repeat of #OscarsSoWhite could be catastrophic for the Academy going forward.
Joshua Axelrod (@jaxel222) is a graduate student in Media and Strategic Communications at George Washington University. Previously, he was a web producer and pop politics writer for the Washington Examiner.